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The Father of Western Perspective-Albrecht Durer

In my Classical Training class we study some of the work of artists who have changed history. The first class we learn about his most famous etching and how he became the the father of Western Perspective.

Durer (who looked a little like Jason Momoa in his self portrait) was known in his day as a painter, but became more famous in history as the artist who drew the praying hands on the cover of every bible ever printed.

What is so revolutionary about this simple sketch is that before Durer, most artists had no real concept of foreshortening or how to draw in proportion or correct perspective.

Its not that people were ugly in the Middle Ages its more that there was not much training for artists in the rules of proportion. Durer made a breakthrough by building a room sized perspective machine which he used to sketch models showing foreshortening and proper proportion. He accomplished this by lining his eye up with a sharp obelisk and sketching the model through the grid. He made a print of it here.

Many artists learned from Durer including Van Gogh who has a version of Durer's machine forged out of iron and wood. He carried this machine to sites and and set it up, painting the ships in the harbor through the grid in perspective and proportion.

Betty Edwards in her groundbreaking book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" took Durer's design, and Van Gogh's design, and simplified it even more to create a perspective machine using only 4 quadrants. This simple design keeps you in the creative side of your brain instead of counting squares which would put you on the analytical side (left) of your brain.

Using this simple glass pane with crosshairs is much easier (and more portable and less expensive) than the previous models.

For our first class, we will learn to use this machine to draw our hand, then to paint our hand, using a subtractive method of drawing and painting.

First, position your hand in the center of the crosshairs and draw it directly on the glass pane using a write on/wipe off marker. Draw every detail and outline directly on the glass.

Once your finished, lay the machine on a piece of plain paper and admire your handiwork.

You have just created a drawing from direct observation.

Now fold a piece of paper in half twice, and tone it with charcoal. Hold the machine over the paper and look through it. Use an eraser to erase out the lights on the paper. Then use the the charcoal to darken the darks on the paper, through the machine. Clean up the drawing and there is your sketch.

You have dark, medium, and light values on the paper, and a ghost-like image of your hand. A little more detail and voila! Give yourself a hand!

Now we are going to do the same thing with paint.

Artists in the Renaissance-era would start a painting by covering the canvas with a thin wash of Raw Umber (thin with linseed oil).

Look through the perspective machine and dip a washcloth in thinner and wipe out the lightest lights.

Use raw umber (undiluted) to paint in the darkest darks with a brush. This helps you refine the shapes better. Put your hand in the pose and paint directly while looking at your hand (not through the machine)

Next mix some white in with the umber and refine the light shapes. Clean your brush and add the lightest lights or highlights.

Now you have three values and the ability to add a few details to make your version of a hand inspired by Durer.

1 Comment

Thank you, Shawn. This is very informative and helpful.

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